The term “Dark Triad” for some, may conjure comic book images of an evil triumvirate set on world domination, and that characterization is not far from the truth. Psychologists use the term Dark Triad to refer to three of the most destructive, abusive, and toxic character types: narcissistic, Machiavellian, and psychopathic personality disorders. Narcissistic personalities are grandiose, self-centered, egotists that lack empathy for others. They really think that they are better than everyone else and deserve special treatment. Narcissists also seek attention persistently. A Machiavellian personality is similar to narcissism in that they are self-centered, but the Machiavellian type specializes in the manipulation and exploitation of others. Unencumbered by morality, Machiavellian personalities will use any means necessary to achieve their goals such as flattery, manipulation and deception. A psychopath can be the classic axe murderer from a horror movie, but they can also be metaphorical “killers” in cutthroat corporate politics. Psychopathy is defined as antisocial behavior marked by impulsivity, selfishness, callousness, and remorselessness (Jakobiwitz and Eagan 2006; Jonason et al. 2012; Paulhus and Williams 2002). This is not to say that every person who possess a trait associated with the Dark Triad is an evil villain. Many who post selfies on social media have some narcissistic tendencies. Intentionality is key, and an essential distinction lies in the term itself—the use of “dark” to describe the trio of personalities indicates malevolence. These behaviors become toxic when one or more Dark Triad traits are used vindictively to get ahead at the expense of others.
Use of the term Dark Triad arises from clinical psychology and is used to describe and diagnose pathological personalities. However, a clinical diagnosis is not necessary for a toxic person to wreak havoc in the workplace. Machiavellian bosses manipulate their employees to maintain power, creating an atmosphere of distrust among their subordinates that diminishes teamwork. They may “stir the pot” so to speak to breed discontent and infighting. Dark Triad traits do not necessarily occur in isolation either. A narcissist could also completely lack empathy and use manipulation to get their way. It is not surprising to find Dark Triad traits in the workplace, because these traits may be perceived as desirable qualities, especially in higher levels of the organization. For example, a quick-thinking, aggressive, unapologetic, and results-oriented sales representative may appear to be the ideal candidate for a senior management position. However, a psychopathic personality may have these same traits (Jonason and Weber 2010:423; Jakobiwitz and Eagan 2006; Jonason et al. 2012; Paulhus and Williams 2002). Because a toxic person could possess qualities from each of these types, and there is some overlap in traits among the three types, it is helpful to consider the Dark Triad as a collective of behaviors. Learning to recognize the toxic traits associated with the Dark Triad and understanding how these toxic people operate in the workplace are the first steps in protecting yourself. Here are how Dark Triad traits may be manifested and how these toxic people behave.
They Will Lie, Cheat, or Steal
Toxic people will use any means necessary to achieve their ends. Some use hard tactics which essentially forces their will on others. These tactics include overt manipulation, deceit, and exploitation, which may be described as pushy, bullying, or mobbing (Jakobiwitz and Eagan 2006). The toxic employee also may not be hampered by normal ethical standards. They will lie, cheat or steal to get their way without hesitation. So, when a rumor circulates about a coworker who has slept her way to the top, or that another coworker’s incompetence has led his clients to all clamber to work with his mentee, consider the source. These could be toxic employees using deceit to discredit their competition.
Another tactic used by toxic people is to manipulate and exert power through threats, but rarely do toxic employees need resort to, or even threaten, physical violence. Violence can be non-physical and can take the form of verbal attacks, insults, or the use of power to illicit fear. Take the Machiavellian boss mentioned earlier as an example. He may use his position to manipulate his subordinates by threatening to fire them if they do not behave as he wishes them to. This attempt to control them economically as well as emotionally keeps the employees unbalanced, and so the Machiavellian boss gains power.
They are Abject Flatterers
Toxic people use charm, flattery and mimicry to get their own way. They develop workplace friendships for the sole purpose of later exploitation. The target may feel that they have made an instant friend that they have a lot in common with, because the toxic person adeptly reflected the target’s own personality back to them. This friendship is one sided, and the target will be cast aside after they are no longer useful. The toxic person is accomplished in using subtle manipulation to convince the target that it is in their own best interest to do exactly what the toxic person wants them to do (Jakobiwitz and Eagan 2006; Kets de Vries 2012). Disney’s Moana contains a classic example of subtle manipulation by a narcissist. When Moana first arrives at the demigod Maui’s island prison, she is resolved that Maui will board her boat and be delivered to Te Fiti to restore her heart. Narcissist Maui has a different, self-serving, objective. He deflects with the song “Your Welcome,” grandiosely claiming responsibility for islands, the sun, the tide and “every natural phenomenon.” Maui charms Moana, who allows herself to be swept into a cave and barricaded in without objecting. He takes her canoe to escape the island – because “Maui can do everything but float.”
They are Honey Badgers (Don’t Care)
Where ever there is power, money and prestige, inevitably there are Dark Triad personalities. They seek attention, prestige or status and expect special treatment. They believe they are better than everyone else, while being callous and unaffected by the plight of others. Martha Stout (2006) makes the claim in her book The Sociopath Next Door that 4% of the population, or 1 in 25 people, has an anti-social personality disorder. Chances are, you work with a psychopath, if Stout’s claim is correct, and you probably would not even know it. The psychopath is expert in masking their callousness, and may even feign emotions. Although the nuances of psychopathy and other anti-social behaviors are beyond the scope of this article, this statistic draws attention to the fact that the tactics these individuals use to get ahead probably has affected everyone at some point. It can be as simple as looking to the upper echelons of any organization to find an example of this in the workplace.
Professor of psychology Kets de Vries (2012:2) has described psychopathy as a spectrum, with criminal psychopaths like Ted Bundy on one end, and at the other, a type of toxic personality he terms “psychopath ‘lite’” or “SOB – Seductive Operational Bully.” These successful and charming people are outwardly normal – but mask their lack of empathy, shame, guilt or remorse. SOBs are quite adaptive and often upwardly mobile, climbing to the top of the organization that values people who are aggressive, take risks, and display coolness under pressure. These SOBs are quite destructive to organizations, and as in Kets de Vries’ case study “Richard,” the magnitude of the destruction may not be evident until after the SOB leaves the company. Superficially Richard seemed to be the perfect candidate for senior management. He was charming, eloquent, decisive, and action-oriented. He was talented in controlling this façade, and he told his superiors exactly what they wanted to hear. But after Richard was head-hunted by a competitor and left the company, the façade crumbled. Richard was in fact, an accomplished liar, exploitative and took credit for others work. He was ruthless, operating “like a spider, weaving a web of lies and deceit, catching his victims unawares, sucking the life force out of them, discarding the empty husk and moving on to the next victim” (Kets de Vries 2012:5). Although perhaps a bit sensational, this description is apt for the SOB, who often completely destroys their targets’ self-esteem, leaving them perplexed, resentful, and distrustful. Toxic people like Richard can literally destroy people and organizations.
Dark Triad personalities and the toxic behaviors they employ are common to workplaces, and most people will encounter one or more of these individuals during their working life. This article provides a brief overview of Dark Triad personalities and their behaviors to assist in identifying these toxic people in the workplace. No specific responses are recommended here, due to the intricacies of each individual experience. Any personal recognition of toxic behaviors outlined in this article should be followed up with further research to determine appropriate responses for individual circumstances.
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